Saturday, April 05, 2014

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Thundarr the Barbarian: "Wizard Wars" (September 12, 1981)

In “Wizard Wars,” Thundarr, Ookla and Ariel rush to the aid of an imperiled human village.  This time, the evil wizard Skullis -- an over-sized metal head -- is enslaving unlucky humans and using them as cannon fodder in his war against another demonic sorcerer, Octagon. 

This situation riles Thundarr and he notes that “humans shall not be” the “pawns” of such monsters.

Thundarr and his friends then must grapple with “the Desert People” in the ruins of St. Louis and then are finally able to destroy Skullis and his technological war machine. 

When his head is shattered into pieces, the humans are again free from their enslavement…

Once more, a familiar, even rote story is visualized in dazzling fashion on Thundarr The Barbarian.  In “Wizard Wars,” for instance we see Skullis’s impressive “land machine,” a giant weapon of war of convincing design, plus the Wizard himself…who boasts robot arms like those of Spidey’s Doc Ock.

This episode of Thundarr also takes us to the desert of St. Louis, and the world beneath it, which is inhabited by ferocious hobbit-like creatures called “The Desert People.” 

One impressive battle in the episode occurs in an ancient shopping mall and a toy store in particular.  Again -- and much like the playground of death we saw in last week’s installment -- a place of joy has been transformed into a place of terror, and combat. 

And yes, this is pretty heavy stuff for a Saturday morning cartoon. I suspect Thundarr got away with such imaginative juxtapositions of innocence and violence because there is very little dialogue about the actual location in the script, only about the narrative itself.  In other words, the episode doesn’t linger on the ghoulish aspects of a destroyed world, even though we see evidence of it everywhere.

Lastly, there is a funny moment here that doesn’t quite make sense.  Late in the action, Thundarr, Ookla and Ariel become trapped on a high ledge, and the army of Skullis attacks them.  Their backs are to a wall…and a drop hundreds of feet down.  Ariel expresses fear at the possibility of falling. But why would she feel this way given her magical abilities?  She could just put herself and her friends in a bubble and land everyone softly on terra-firma!

In fact, just moments after Ariel makes the fearful comment, she does use her magic, and builds an energy or light bridge to the ground.  She says something like it’s a “good” thing for Thundarr that she can work her magic.

This is true, but it undercuts her earlier sense of fear, doesn’t it?

Next week: “Island of the Body Snatchers.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Land of the Lost (1991 - 1992): "Sorceress's Apprentice" (November 28, 1992)

In “Sorceress’s Apprentice,” the sorceress Keela (Adilah Barnes) gives Annie her spell book for safe keeping. 

Alas, Kevin also wants to use the book’s magical powers and tries to steal it from his sister.  Mr. Porter warns Kevin to quit it, but soon Kevin enlists Stink’s help in the task.

Later, Shung -- leader of the renegade Sleestaks -- gets his hands on Keela’s valuable grimoire and transforms Mr. Porter into a turtle. 

Annie gets the book back, and must practice her own magic to restore her imperiled father.

When Keelah finally returns to claim her spell book, the sorceress informs Annie that using such magic properly takes years of practice….

If you’ve been reading my reviews of the 1990s Land of the Lost the previous couple of weeks, you’ll understand why I write now that I’ve all but given up on the series. 

“Sorceress’s Apprentice” provides no reason for restored faith. The story is more aptly a situation comedy than a fantasy adventure, and once more the use of magic goes thoroughly unexplored. Magic is just a gimmick here, a vehicle for comedy moments like Annie turning Kevin’s hair a bright red, or Dad being transformed into Kevin.

Sadly, Keela never explains how the magic of her world operates in the Land of the Lost. We never know the source of the magic, and in many cases, Annie doesn’t even seem to be reading from the spell book while performing the magic. Instead she just says nonsense words and magical things miraculously happen.  It’s all like a first grader’s idea of casting spells.

The whole idea of magic in “Sorceress’s Apprentice” is totally unexplored and so Keela’s line that “there are rules” for it is laughable. This episode establishes no such rules, or even the groundwork for rules.  Here, it looks like anyone -- Annie, Kevin, or Shung -- can cast spells simply and easily, without study, without preparation, without, even, gathering ingredients for them.

Instead, the episode wants to teach a lesson about responsibility. Annie must use the magic responsibly, if she hopes to master it. That’s not a bad message, but it doesn’t exactly work with all the comedy pratfalls and jokes.

Meanwhile, Timothy Bottoms has effectively become a guest-star on his own series, and Mr. Porter appears only briefly here to talk to Kevin sternly, and to get transformed into (in order), a turtle, Stink, Kevin, and the Cyclops nemesis of Keela. 

Once more, there is no reason given for the fact that Annie causes these transformations while trying to restore her Dad to his original form.  It just happens, and is supposed to be funny…but isn’t.

Still, at least this episode has some threat, in the form of Shung. Like Kevin, he wants to possess the spell book and so makes some trouble for the Porters.  

The next episode of the series, “Misery Loves Company” doesn’t offer even that much.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Cloned from a Mutual Zygote: Vincent/Joshua Edition

Cult-Movie Review: Conan the Barbarian (2011)

Times have undoubtedly changed since 1982, and that fact is clear from a screening of the 2011 Marcus Nispel fantasy film, Conan the Barbarian. 
The re-boot -- like many films produced in the last decade -- is virtually awash in CGI imagery, often at the expense of its sense of realism.
By contrast, John Milius’s 1982 Conan featured real locations, and marshaled symbolic imagery to express the nature of Conan’s life, from the Wheel of Pain to the anti-family cult of Thulsa Doom.
Many movies made today, however, can’t be bothered to think in symbolic or resonant terms. Instead, filmmakers labor under the delusion that symbolism is unnecessary because digital imagery makes all things possible.
But more than anything, the constant and oppressive use of digital creatures and imagery in this Conan the Barbarian tends to make the picture look identical to every other fantasy movie of recent vintage.
Therefore, the production loses some crucial aspect of Conan’s indomitable essence: the singularity of his personality and even his very physicality. 
In short, there are moments in this film when you can’t be certain if you are watching Conan the Barbarian, The Immortals (2011), Clash of the Titans (2010), a Stephen Sommers Mummy movie, or  a film I genuinely liked, John Carter of Mars (2012). 
There’s just no visual distinction here. There’s nothing that screams “This is Conan!” like you hope the movie would, or the way that 300 (2007) shouts “This is Sparta!”
Therefore, by the time of Conan’s digitally-larded climax -- which features characters hanging onto impossible, computer-generated precipices by their finger-nails -- all human interest and danger has long since bled out of the picture.
At about the 45-minute point of the film, you may just find that you have stopped caring…about anything related to Conan.
And that’s a true shame, because brooding, saturnine Jason Mamoa seems absolutely right for the part, both in appearance and demeanor.  With a better script and a more realistic and distinctive visual canvas, he would likely have made a great Conan instead of a Conan few people saw, and fewer cared for.
Outside Mamoa, this Conan features a few strengths worth mentioning.
Ron Perlman is a perfect choice to play the warrior’s father, and the script does, at the very least, feature some nice call-backs to Howard’s literary Conan, namely the barbarian’s vocations as thief and pirate.

 “I live. I love. I slay. And I’m content.”
Young Conan, the son of Corin of Cimmeria (Perlman), undergoes a difficult training exercise in which he must navigate the hazardous woods and overcome all kinds of physical challenges without breaking a delicate egg. The training is interrupted by marauders, but still Conan endures.
Soon after this exercise, the hordes of Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) invade Cimmeria.  Zym is in search of a piece of the legendary “Mask of Archeron,” which he believes is the key to the resurrection of his dead wife.  Zym finds the piece in Corin’s black-smith tent, and leaves Conan an orphan.
Some years later and now a pirate, Conan encounters one of Zym’s henchman and renews his quest for vengeance.  He learns that Zym and his sorceress daughter, Marique (Rose McGowan) are seeking to re-assemble the mask, but require the pure blood of a hereditary princess to do so. They believe they will find their quest at a nearby monastery.
There, beautiful Tamara (Rachel Nichols) learns of her true nature and Zym’s nasty plan for her. Conan rides to Tamara’s rescue, but Zym is relentless, and re-captures her.
Now Conan must save Tamara, with whom he has fallen in love before Zym and Marique can conduct an occult ritual which will rob the woman of her very soul.

“Come…time to forge a blade.”

Well…this will likely go down in the history books as one of my shortest reviews here on the blog, and that’s because there simply isn’t much good or interesting to talk about in regards to this cinematic iteration of the Conan legend. 

Reviewing the film is actually a struggle for me, because there’s relatively little to latch onto. Conan the Destroyer (1984) looks like an example of layered and nuanced filmmaking by comparison.

Not unlike other fantasy movies of recent vintage that I watched but never reviewed -- Snow White and the Huntsman (2013) and The Wrath of the Titans (2012) to name them -- this Conan the Barbarian is a remarkably empty viewing experience.

Technically, all these films are competently wrought, yet they recede from memory almost immediately after their end credits roll. They are incredibly disposable efforts, expressing no deep thoughts, and possessing no real visual style to distinguish them.

After a while it all looks like the same CGI castles, monsters, and backdrops to me, and a kind of digital snow-blindness occurs.

So Conan the Barbarian is eminently forgettable, which is sad given the nature of this particular character and franchise.

But in addition to being forgettable, this re-boot is often laughable too. 

For example, a scene early in the film in which a pint-sized, pre-adolescent Conan dispatches a horde of giant attackers -- yet is able to keep an egg intact (per his training…) -- might sound fine on paper, but on screen it plays as merely ludicrous. Conan isn’t Superman, but this scene exaggerates his abilities to cartoonish levels.

It doesn’t even make sense on a character level when played out on-screen: why would Conan even care about the egg once a real battle is joined?

The nature of the love story here is also, largely, underwhelming. Tamara is one of those all-too familiar female characters who starts out a movie as indulged, pampered, and reluctant to get into a scrap. But then, by movie’s end, she is dispatching bad guys with flair and expertise. 

One element of the Milius version that this iteration probably didn’t need to revive, anyway, was the romance.  In the original film, Valeria and Conan formed a bond based on their mutual love of battle, and few words needed to be spoken.  Tamara is hot (and – yay! -- there’s a sex scene here…) but she never seems like Conan’s true match or equal.  She’s a nice distraction, though, but that’s not how the movie treats her. Instead, she is True Love material.

Finally, one wonders why the makers of Conan movies feel it necessary to keep re-inventing his origin, only with different bad-guys killing his family members each time.

Unequivocally, the best thing about the film is Mamoa.

He looks good -- faintly sinister and pissed off -- and he moves well.

If the James Bond saga has taught us anything about such matters, it is that sometimes an actor deserves a second (or third…) chance in a make-or-break role, because he can grow into it. 

By giving the actor a chance to do just that, a franchise maintains its own internal integrity.  In the 1980s and early 1990s we had three Batman actors in four films, for example, and so the fabric of that movie universe seems frayed to me.

So if a new Conan the King movie arrives with Arnold Schwarzenegger back as the elder Conan, there’s absolutely no reason why Mamoa can’t be brought back as young Conan too…in a hopefully far superior effort.

Then again, I felt the same way about Brandon Routh.

In a world of instantly disposable movies, this is part of the problem.  As Conan the Barbarian fails before your very eyes, it’s hard to register even much disgust about it. The bloody thing will probably get re-booted in five years anyway....

Maybe that movie will be a better one.  

Movie Trailer: Conan the Barbarian (2011)

Thursday, April 03, 2014

At Anorak: 5 Sci-Fi TV Series Scuttled by Second Season Changes

It gazes at five science fiction TV programs from the last fifty years that underwent drastic revisions in their second seasons, and were subsequently canceled because of those changes, at least in part.

The series I discuss include Space:1999 (1975 – 1977), Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 – 1981), War of the Worlds (1988 – 1990), SeaQuest DSV (1993 – 1995), and Dark Angel (2000 – 2002).

Here’s asnippet:

WE might accept as axiomatic the belief that patience is a virtue. However, over the decades, several notable and even celebrated science fiction TV series have failed to live up to this ideal.
Instead of demonstrating patience and prudence, their makers have instead demonstrated radical impatience, and — after promising first season sorties — instituted sweeping changes that, in some cases, threw away the baby with the bath water.
Below is a list of five science fiction programs that — had they adhered more closely to their original format —  might have survived the turbulent air-waves for several additional seasons.
In other words, these science fiction TV series were not broke, and simply didn’t require the kind of dramatic format “fixing” they endured.

The Films of 1984: Conan the Destroyer

After a high-flying first film in the franchise – due in large part to director John Milius’s symbolic visuals -- the cinematic Conan saga loses some dramatic altitude with this average but not disastrous follow-up, 1984’s Conan the Destroyer
The sequel film is a fairly innocuous -- but also fairly childish -- adventure that adopts the wrong tack in terms of Conan’s motivations, and ham-handedly defines him as a gullible hulk rather than as a cunning warrior.  
In short, it’s difficult to believe Conan would become involved in this adventure’s “quest,” especially for the specific reasons that he does.  The literary Conan -- and the Conan of Milius’s film -- would know better.
Furthermore, the precise quest that Conan undertakes in this film from Richard Fleischer -- while picturesque at times thanks to some good 1980s special effects -- nonetheless feels like a tightly-budgeted one. 
Specifically, the major battle sequences are all small potatoes in scope and execution… especially compared to Conan the Barbarian.  These fights are relatively uninvolving affairs shot with little distinction, on small sets, and featuring uninspiring creatures that Conan would easily dispatch under many circumstances. 
Also, the film abandons the principle of preparedness by which Conan defeated the legions of Thulsa Doom in the finale of Conan the Barbarian.  Thus the fights here seem more like impromptu wrestling matches than warrior-against-warrior combat.
With some rather under-compelling performers in the secondary roles, Conan the Destroyer just feels a lot like a middling, second-rate sequel to a legitimate masterpiece.  It’s not a Superman III (1983) or Superman IV (1986) styled disaster, to be certain, but the second Conan film nonetheless disappoints, falling far short of its superior model.

“We shall both have everything we want through magic.”
Queen Taramis (Sarah Douglas) of Shadizar recruits the great warrior Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) for a quest.  After promising Conan that she can resurrect his lost love, Valeria, she entices him to take her niece, Jehnna (Olivia D’Abo) to retrieve a sacred jewel that can awaken Dagoth, the “dreaming God.”
Conan, with his sidekick, Malak the Thief (Tracey Walter) agrees to Taramis’s terms, even though the warrior is not thrilled to be accompanied by the captain of the Queen’s guard, Bombaata (Wilt Chamberlain).
Conan is also unaware that Taramis’s true plan involves sacrificing Jehnna in order to awaken Dagoth.
After recruiting his wizard friend Akiro (Mako) from cannibals, and freeing Zula (Grace Jones) -- a warrior facing down angry villagers that she has robbed -- Conan and his team retrieve the jewel from the castle of Toth-Amon (Pat Roach). In a Hall of Mirrors, Conan defeats the wizard in close quarters combat.
Later, at an ancient temple, Jehnna and Conan retrieve the horn of Dagoth, and Bombaata springs his trap, abducting Jehnna and taking her prize back to Queen Taramis.
Conan rides back to Shadizar to save Jehnna, and to stop the monstrous Dagoth…who has awakened to wreak havoc on the world of man.

 “It seems that men like women warriors.”

It appears that many of Conan the Destroyer’s problems arise with the basic premise, and Conan’s participation in this particular adventure.

Specifically, Taramis promises Conan that she can return Valeria to him, and Conan much too easily accepts both the possibility of such a resurrection, and the Queen’s motivations for delivering on her promise. 

The Conan of literature and film has always had a tremendous suspicion of magic, and yet here he decides to undertake a quest which will have magical results (the re-birth of a God…), so that he can be the beneficiary of other magical results (the re-birth of his would-be queen).

In short, it just doesn’t seem like Conan to take Taramis at her word about such a grave matter. He should be more suspicious of the Queen and her promises, especially given Sarah Douglas’s haughty (but good…) performance.  She doesn’t exactly inspire trust.

Conan should know that Valeria cannot return to him and that even if she could, it would be…unnatural.  

A better screenplay might have been tweaked to reflect the idea that Conan undertakes this quest for different reasons, ones entirely his own, and probably concerning the fact that he senses a terrible danger. 

Or, simply, the screenplay might have had one scene --  just one scene -- in which Conan questioned the use of magic to restore Valeria. 

Under those circumstances would Valeria want to be restored? 

Conan -- Valeria’s soul mate -- would know the answer instinctively.

Beyond Conan’s willingness to accept that his beloved Valeria can and will return to him, I find it highly unlikely that this warrior would go on a quest in which the end game is, quite clearly, resurrecting a slumbering God.

Conan has almost as little use for Gods as he does for magic. 

So why would Conan agree to help recover an object that could bring about the reign of a dark, monstrous figure, even if he doesn’t know the specifics of how dark or how monstrous the revived Dagoth would actually be?

Arnold Schwarzenegger is once again much more than satisfactory as Conan, but there are times during the film when the adventure seems more appropriate to some other fantasy character, not the man from Cimmeria.   Conan the Barbarian dramatized the story of how Conan was forged and tempered, how he became a man.  It was a vital story to tell.  Conan the Destroyer plays like a boiler-plate adventure, and not one that is particularly notable in Conan’s life.

It’s also plain -- since this film is rated PG, not R -- that Conan the Destroyer begins the unfortunate process of mainstreaming Conan, of making him “acceptable” to parents and other establishment figures worried about “morality.” 

To wit, there is almost no sex in the film at all. Conan is absolutely chaste here. There are no interludes like the kinky one with the witch/demon in Conan the Barbarian. One might argue that Conan is in mourning, of course, but sex has been subtracted not just from his character, but from the film’s very DNA.

Similarly, there is much less gore here than in the previous film, though we do witness Conan’s decapitation of a cannibal while saving the wizard.  The violence is all just more…palatable, and therefore less involving, and less exciting.

The straight-forward, kiddie-friendly approach to the Conan universe might have worked more effectively if there was a larger, more spectacular background tapestry upon which to rely.  Although there are some impressive shots in the film of animal bones in the desert, and mystical and mysterious kingdoms, the big action set-pieces prove remarkable unmemorable.

The Hall of Mirrors sequence doesn’t make a lot of sense given the way the special effects play out, because Conan is able to determine which “reflection” is the real monster without hardship or confusion. 
Secondly, the creature’s make-up in this scene is horrible. 

And thirdly, this sequence is one of the movie’s two big fights, and it occurs in a small room, and with almost no elaboration or detail. It’s just a grudge match.

Worse, the climax in the Queen’s kingdom plays as a repeat of Hall of Mirrors battle. Dagoth awakes, and he looks like a Dark God as imagined by H.P. Lovecraft.  But he is no more difficult to put down than the mirror creature was.  And again, the battle takes place in one room, with Conan indulging, basically, in one-on-one combat.  It just feels very small potatoes, very rushed, especially compared, again, to the first film’s set-pieces.

I have read that some critics and viewers have a problem with Grace Jones’ character, Zula, but for me, she worked just fine.  Zula doesn’t talk too much, she’s useful in a fight, and there’s no sentimentalizing of the character to any significant degree.  She’s the kind of sidekick I prefer in such fare: a capable and loyal fighter who doesn’t feel the need to crack jokes all the time.

For me, the characters who don’t work are, primarily, Malak and BombaAta.  Malak is second-rate comic relief, and not particularly useful in a fight, or any other pinch, which makes one wonder why Conan keeps him around. 

In Wilt Chamberlain’s hands, Bombaata lacks any sense of genuine menace at all, either physical or psychological.  He just comes off as…flat.

Meanwhile, Olivia D’Abo has the thankless task of playing the Lynn Holly Johnson (For Your Eyes Only) role to Schwarzenegger’s Conan, lusting eternally after him, but too young for the barbarian to take seriously as a sexual conquest. D’Abo is capable in the role, but again, Jehnna is not particularly well-defined. 
She knows all aspects of the Dagoth legend by heart, except the particulars of her role in it?

There’s a whole lot of walkin’ in Conan the Destroyer (a flaw in many modern fantasy films, I find…), and while the scenery is relatively beautiful, the relative “emptiness” of the narrative leaves one time to ponder how disappointing the film is, or how out-of-character Conan seems, or how the film might have been better without some of the stunt casting, like Chamberlain.

Less audacious, less raunchy, less downright naughty than Conan the Barbarian, this 1984 sequel is straight-forward and often fun, but it is not the Conan sequel most of us hoped for, even with Arnold Schwarzenegger inhabiting the role for a second time.

The first film remains a work of pop art of the first order, a magnificent epic that comments on aspects of our society, and which conveys its meaning through deftly-executed symbolic imagery.

Conan the Destroyer’s approach is entirely more mundane and workman-like.  The movie entertains moderately, moment-to-moment, but that is not accomplishment near grand enough for this particular barbarian…

Tomorrow: Conan the Barbarian (2011)

Movie Trailer: Conan the Destroyer (1984)

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Guest Review: Afflicted (2014)

Review by Jonas Schwartz

Both the vampire and the found-footage sub-genres have gotten pretty tired as of late, but Afflicted finds a novel way to combine both conventions, stripping many of the sub-genres’ traps from the tale.

Writers/directors Derek Lee and Clif Prowse cast themselves as the two protagonists -- even using their own names – thus lending an authenticity to their relationship. Because the two ingratiate themselves to the audience, the horror they live becomes all the more harrowing.

After being diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, Derek takes his best friend Clif on a European trip to end all trips. Amateur filmmakers, they document their tour through the cities, both the sightseeing and the skirt-chasing.

Wanting to forget his troubles for a night, Derek abandons Clif and their two other friends to hook up with a sexy, mysterious woman at a Paris nightclub. Pranking him, the guys dart into his bedroom to embarrass Derek only to find him bloodied and bitten.

Clif and Derek continue their trip, though Derek remains lethargic and nauseated in Italy. Derek discovers he’s not dying from his attack, he’s evolving. Derek can jump buildings and his senses have heightened. He also realizes he has a bloodlust. He chases a pig, breaks into a blood bank, and tries to find alternative nourishment, but he eventually can’t deny, he requires more blood, human blood. As Derek transforms, Clif continues to film everything, even though he is terrified for and of his best friend.

Derek’s activities become more public and the authorities consider Derek to be a dangerous sociopath. His family, confounded by his shocking behavior, hope to convince him to surrender, but Derek must return to Paris, to find the girl who first afflicted this curse on him.

Lee and Prowse take supernatural situations and ground them with logic. First, their characters are not drunk party animals out for a lay like the victims of Eli Roth’s Hostel. They’re on a noble sojourn. Because Derek is dying and all Clif wants is a once-of-a-lifetime journey for his best friend who has been robbed of his adulthood, they start off as identifiable humans.

Second, even if the plot requires certain actions, the characters’ motivations are strong enough that it makes it easy to believe they’re following their judgment as opposed to being just pawns to the story.

Derek avoids hospitals (as many clichéd victims may in these horror tales) after his attack in Paris. However he associates the hospital with his impending death and knows his time is limited. If the doctors force him to remain bed-ridden, he will have wasted his last opportunity to really live before he dies, therefore Derek’s ignoring of his pain and traveling to Italy makes common sense.

The directors film the episodes with a flair for Cinéma vérité. The first half-hour has a light energy, with squiggle chyrons announcing characters and locales. A casual observer may mistake the movie for an episode of MTV’s The Real World or a hipper Extreme Make-Over.

Setting the film in Europe adds to the foreignness of their situation. Derek’s confusion over his symptoms and his exasperation due to a lack of control of his own body is heightened because he can’t understand the local language and can’t communicate with others.

There’s a motif involving animals throughout the film, from wandering pigs in the outskirts to Derek’s feral squeaking when on the attack, thus equating Derek with his devolution into an instinctual beast.

Lee and Prowse have graduated from short films to full length with Afflicted. Their empathy for characters and ability to set up a moral structure within an outlandish world, distinguishes both as filmmakers to watch.

If you like Afflicted, rent Chronicle, one of the most gripping found footage films of the new millennium. Starring future stars Dane DeHaan (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) and Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station and TV’s Friday Night Lights), Chronicle is a brilliantly-acted and smartly shot metaphor for adolescence and the pain of morphing into someone you don’t recognize, i.e. an adult.  

Jonas Schwartz is a voting member of the Los Angeles Drama Critics, and the West Coast Critic for TheaterMania. Check out his “Jonas at the Movies” reviews at Maryland Nightlife.

Movie Trailer: Afflicted (2014)

At Anorak: 5 Sci-Fi Movies that Didn't Deserve the MST-3K Treatment

My latest article at Anorak gazes at five science fiction films that got roasted on Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988 -1999) but that, in fairness, were not awful. 

Or, at least they were not as awful as MST-3K’s regular fare (Manos the Hands of Fate, Space Mutiny, The Creeping Terror, Eegah, Future War, Monster-A-Go-Go, etc…).

Here’s asnippet:
TO the delight of virtually everyone, the late, great Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988 – 1999) seems to be experiencing something of a pop culture resurgence these days.
April 1st  of this year saw former Mystery Science Theater 3000 stars Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy return to top form in National Geographic’s Total Riff-Off, and the cable network Retro TV recently announced that it will begin airing MST-3K reruns starting July 5, 2014.
Among other triumphs, the award-winning Mystery Science Theater 3000 brought attention to some of the world’s most unbelievably bad and obscure movies, like Manos, The Hands of Fate(1966), Red Zone Cuba (1966), Wild World of Batwoman (1966) and Space Mutiny (1988).
Yet the brand of negative, mocking attention that an MST-3K spotlight could bring was also capable of irreparably harming a movie’s reputation, and sending its IMDB scores plummeting.
Over the years, several movies that had — before Mystery Science Theater 3000 — not been considered half-bad, saw their reputations altered forever for the worse after they were included on the program.
With that idea in mind, let’s gaze at five science fiction films featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000 that are much better than their presence on this beloved and legendary “bad movie” series suggests.

Pop Art: Conan the Barbarian (Marvel)

Pop Art: Conan Movie Magazine Covers

Lunchbox of the Week: Conan

Board Game of the Week: The Age of Conan (Nexus Games)

Theme Song of the Week: Conan the Adventurer (1992 - 1993)

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

The Visitors are Coming: V: "Liberation Day"

V: The Series (1984 – 1985) officially kicks off with “Liberation Day,” an episode which premiered on Friday, October 26, 1984.

This segment by Paul Monash introduces a new character to the franchise, Nathan Bates (Lane Smith) and also presents some changes in established lore.

Most significant among the changes is the fact that the alien Visitors no longer possess a “reverb” or “echo” in their voices, a key distinguishing feature.

For me, subtracting the reverb from the alien equation is a bit like Mr. Spock losing his pointed ears. It’s not merely a cosmetic thing; the loss affects negatively the whole “alien” vibe of the Visitors.

Worse, no explanation is offered as to the sudden change. Instead, it is just assumed that we will forget about the Visitors’ unique vocalizations.

For those who are too young to remember, this is what TV used to be like all the time, even the best of it. Continuity wasn’t always a strong point.

Fans of the two mini-series were also disappointed to see that this premiere episode dispatches with a favorite character, Frank Ashmore’s Martin, who is killed by Diana.The actor would return to play Martin’s twin brother, Philip, in later episodes of the series.

The other changes we encounter in “Liberation Day” appear a bit more promising, at least at this early juncture. The introduction of Bates and his organization, Science Frontiers, helps to explain a logic gap in V: The Final Battle (1984), explaining how the Resistance -- scattered and on the run -- was able to mass produce the toxic Red Dust. 

As a character, Bates is quite important here. Not entirely unlike Ham Tyler, Bates is a reminder that not all human beings are “white knights.” Bates loves to make money, and he loves power.  He will ally himself with the side that can help him attain those ends. Morality doesn’t seem to play into his decision-making process, merely self-advantage. A morally-ambiguous character, Bates is a net-plus for the series, in my opinion, and someone who would have been right at home in the first mini-series.

Finally, some of the imagery in “Liberation Day” is actually quite powerful, particularly the attempted assassination of Diana (Jane Badler), which seems to be executed based on real world history. 

Also in terms of visuals, the episode’s valedictory pull-back from Earth to the far side of the Moon is brilliantly orchestrated, a visual effects high-point.

As the camera retracts into space, we see the remnants of the Visitor fleet…hiding from sight, but ready to strike.

“I cure the ills of the world and you get all the credit…”

In “Liberation Day,” one year has passed since the Visitors were driven from Earth by the toxic Red Dust. Mike Donovan (Marc Singer) captured Diana (Badler), and now she prepares to stand trial for crimes against humanity. 

Meanwhile, Juliet (Faye Grant) has been working at Nathan Bates’ company, Science Frontiers, to unlock the secrets of the captured Los Angeles mothership. 

Unfortunately for the humans, the research has not gone well. Juliet has not been able to break Diana’s security lock over key systems. This fact leads Bates to hire mercenary Ham Tyler (Michael Ironside).

Ham fakes Diana’s assassination and then abducts Diana so she can work for Bates, an arrangement she is none-too-happy about.

When Martin learns what Bates is up to, he is unhappy as well, and he inadvertently releases Diana while attempting to kill her. Martin later apologizes to Mike, and warns him that Diana -- now free -- will attempt to signal the Visitor fleet to return. Soon after that warning, Martin dies.

Elsewhere, a worried Robert Maxwell (Michael Durrell) contacts Juliet because Elizabeth (Jenny Wright) seems to be undergoing some kind of cellular metamorphosis. Juliet tries to help, but Elizabeth -- the Star Child -- enters a strange fleshy cocoon, and begins the process of transformation…

After Martin’s death, Mike and Ham join forces to stop Diana, but she has already reached the Northwest Tracking Station” and sent an emergency transmission to her people. 

A skyfighter returns for Diana, and she learns that the Visitor fleet is hiding behind the Earth’s moon, awaiting the orders to strike…

“When there’s no more she can give you…she’s mine.”

Aside from the removal of the Visitors’ trademark “echo” voices, “Liberation Day’s” greatest issue is simply that it suffers from rather dramatic budgetary limitations. 

For example, the same KDHB helicopter is used throughout the episode, both to taunt Elizabeth, and in Mike’s aerial pursuit of Diana’s ambulance. 

And the first sections of the episode egregiously re-purpose aerial battle footage from the original V (1983) mini-series.

Similarly, the protests outside Diana’s courtroom appear sparsely populated in long shots.

In real life, you’d expect thousands of people from all over the world to be protesting at her arrival.

The close-up and medium shots are much better in terms of blocking, and seem more densely-populated,

As it continues, the scene works well, especially with newscaster references to The Nuremburg Trials. This notation of Nuremburg is important because the V franchise very much works as an allegory for Nazi Germany and World War II, and it’s nice to see the series to continue that leitmotif.

In fact, the ensuing visuals of Diana’s “assassination” also do a brilliant job of capturing the anarchy of such public violence. Every time I watch this particular scene in “Liberation Day,” I can’t help but think of Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassination by Jack Ruby.  Oswald was surrounded on all sides by police escorts, and yet he was still shot…in plain sight. 

The staging here is quite similar to that moment from history, with Diana in police hands as Ham (the assassin) opens fire, and she goes down.

One of the qualities I love most about the V franchise is its constant re-purposing of historical imagery and detail so as to vet its story of fascism, war and occupation. In this case, the pandemonium that accompanies Diana’s assassination attempt looks quite familiar, and therefore quite real.  Hand-held camera-work does a good job of creating a sense of immediacy and panic.

“Liberation Day” also expresses well how dangerous a personality Diana truly is. She escapes from captivity, commandeers a truck after seducing a fat redneck (!), and communicates with her people before Mike and Ham can stop her.

Again, Jane Badler’s performance proves delicious, in part because the actress seems to really “get” the material, both the horrific aspects of Diana’s “appetite,” and the comedic aspect of it as well. Badler reveals a “pleasure” in the character’s (evil) nature that is always enjoyable to experience. Even when the writing isn’t always up to snuff, Badler’s performance as Diana shines.

Michael Ironside also makes a strong impression, again, as Ham, and one gets the feeling that it was the actor himself who suggested the line to Bates, quoted above -- “When there’s no more she can give you, she’s mine.” 

This particular bit of dialogue goes a long way towards making Ham seem less concerned with money, and more honorable.  In other words, he is playing his own angle here, pretending to work for Bates, but assuring that, in the end, he takes care of Diana, whom he describes as “a disease.”

My least favorite aspects of “Liberation Day” and indeed V: The Series tend to involve Elizabeth, the Star Child. 

For one thing, she always seems to have the right power for whatever situation she is in, and I’ve never liked her mystical nature. 

For another, neither the Visitors nor mankind possess psychic powers, so I don’t understand why she does. 
Here, young Elizabeth sees her growth accelerated, and the episode ends up with her in a cave, undergoing transformation. I remember being intensely disappointed when Elizabeth didn’t emerge a lizard, but just a beautiful blond human, instead.  When you look at that nasty cocoon membrane seen here, you really expect something horrible…or at least interesting.

Although a step down in terms of production and writing quality from both V and V: The Final Battle, “Liberation Day” gets the job done re-establishing the franchise, and is one of the series’ better episodes… in large part due to the exciting final moments, and the valedictory shot of the Visitors hiding beyond the lunar surface.

Next episode: “Dreadnought”